Russian, English, and "Oklahomski"


  1. Russian, English, and "Oklahomski"
  2. Unexpected realities of daily life on the ISS (from Scott Kelly's 'Endurance')

Russian, English, and "Oklahomski"

This past week was the 89th birthday of Thomas Stafford, and I came across a funny story about him on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project worth sharing!

Stafford was born in Weatherford, Oklahoma on September 17, 1930, and was selected as part of NASA's Group 2 of astronauts (same class as Neil Armstrong). He flew on Gemini 6A, Gemini 9, and Apollo 10 before being assigned command of the experimental Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, a joint mission between the US and the Soviet Union and the first ever international cooperation in space

Americans: Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton, Vance Brand | Soviets: Alexey Leonov, Valeri Kubasov

ASTP was politically important as part of both superpowers' broader policy of d├ętente, a thawing of the Cold War tensions as the US wound down the Vietnam War, making this historic collaboration possible. During ASTP, the Americans piloted their Apollo Command Module (the last to ever fly) and docked with the Soviet Soyuz capsule using a special docking mechanism co-developed by American and Soviet engineers. The crew spent several days conducting science experiments together, inspecting each other's spacecraft, and broadcasting to the world in a show of peace and cooperation. In retrospect, ASTP is seen as the symbolic close to the Space Race that put man on the moon

Artist's rendering of the Apollo Command Module and Soviet Soyuz docking in Earth orbit

But one major sticking point of the first international space mission - the language barrier! The astronauts and cosmonauts had to work hard to quickly learn each other's languages and flight procedures. It seems like the Soviets were way better at learning English than the Americans were at learning Russian. When Commander Stafford declared, "We have capture" upon successful docking, Soviet Commander Leonov responded, "Well done, Tom, it was a good show" in English! But Stafford struggled the most with Russian; because of his heavy Oklahoma drawl when he spoke Russian, Leonov joked that there were really three languages being spoken on ASTP - Russian, English, and "Oklahomski!"

The Soyuz main control panel. Surprise surprise - everything's in RUSSIAN!

I feel for you Commander Stafford, learning languages is hard! I've been trying to learn Chinese for years to no avail - my Chinese professor at UT Austin was once so appalled at my abysmal pronunciation, she asked me if I was actually Chinese (I am). Yet another wrench in my spaceflight ambitions, if Americans ever get to visit future Chinese Tiangong space stations :(

The other wholesome fact worth sharing about ASTP - Commanders Stafford and Leonov remained lifelong friends after the mission. Leonov is even the godfather to Stafford's two youngest children! Proof that space exploration unites us all, regardless of country, language, or any other division

Not communist and capitalist, but commanders, pioneers, and buddies

Unexpected realities of daily life on the ISS

Apollo-Soyuz laid the groundwork for future international cooperation, followed by Shuttle-Mir in the 90s and the ISS today. Nowadays, we take for granted how seamlessly complexities like language barriers are handled (other countries' astronauts still need to know English and Russian, so they end up being trilingual!). But reading astronaut Scott Kelly's book Endurance, reflecting on the year he spent on the ISS, revealed so much more about the struggles of living in what's essentially a zero-G metal cocoon

Learn about his awesome orbital twinning space medicine experiment here!
A few things I learned:

  1. The CO2 removal device on the ISS is actually pretty crappy! Kelly describes his constant frustration at the Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly (CDRA), how often it conks out, how difficult it is to repair, and how bad the air quality becomes when the whole station is reduced to just the CO2 removal device on the Russian segment. After 60 years of spaceflight, you'd think we'd have that down
  2. Sponge baths and limited water rations are used for personal hygiene, but what about laundry? There's obviously no laundromat on the ISS, how do astronauts wash their clothes? The answer - they don't! They just wear the same clothes again and again until it becomes intolerably gross, then they'll throw the old clothes away and put on new ones delivered on cargo resupplies. Seems unsustainable on a long-duration trip to Mars... imaging wearing the same few underwears for 2 years
  3. There's an espresso machine on board, known as ISSpresso! A joint project between Lavazza and the Italian Space Agency, apart from serving tasty caffeine, it also lends some interesting observations on foam formation of liquid mixtures in zero-G. The first space espresso was enjoyed by Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in 2015

And you thought your $5 latte was pricey, ISSpresso cost about a million bucks to build and launch!

Highly recommend the book! It's an easy read

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